Back when he was The Turk for the 2001 Ravens on Hard Knocks, or rolling the dice in letting his Baltimore contract run out to pursue career advancement, or breaking through with a VP job in Philly, this would probably have qualified as the last place Joe Douglas would expect to reach the top rung of the NFL’s scouting ladder.
But there he was two Fridays ago, when it all came together.
“This is crazy,” Douglas said from his new office on Thursday. “I was in my house. But because there was so much commotion going on with the kids—there were kids everywhere—I was walking around back and forth upstairs and I was on and off the phone. And I went to my room and there's a desk in our bedroom and I was sitting at the desk, and then the kids would run in and I’d walk out.
“So finally I barricaded myself in my youngest daughter's room. I had to have my phone calls, and get some peace and quiet, so I shut the door. And I'm sitting on my daughter's bed in a room with pink walls.”
And that’s where he processed everything: the initial rumors of interest from the Jets in April, all the tumult that organization had gone through since, his interview five days earlier, and the negotiations over the 48 hours or so prior that promised to set his family up financially for decades to come. The decision coming would be life-changing for his family. For Douglas it was 19 years in the making. All of it, right there in a place that wasn’t exactly stirring thoughts of third-and-2.
“Making the decision to be a New York Jet,” Douglas said. “I hung up the phone and looked around. I was like, ‘Wow, I never thought it’d go down like that.’ It was pretty funny.”
The decision wasn’t easy. Douglas knows the vast majority of personnel men only get one shot at being a GM, and the Eagles’ success and stability gave him flexibility to be patient. He’s also aware that the job in front of him has its challenges—he’s the fourth guy to serve in the position for the franchise this decade, and there are reasons for that. But he’s at peace now. Douglas is the Jets' new GM. It’s full steam ahead.
The NFL’s summer vacation starts now, but this is a 52-week-a-year column, and so we’ve got plenty coming to you in this mid-June MMQB:
• Kyle Rudolph on the most unsettling few months of his NFL career.
• A look at this weekend's black quarterback summit, from the man who organized it.
• An appreciation for late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.
• More on the Patriots-Texans dustup.
And we’ve got a bunch to get to in wrapping manadatory minicamps. But we’re starting with the team that probably had an eventful six weeks during what’s normally the NFL’s quiet time.
Here’s the other thing Douglas did 10 days ago while he was sitting there in his daughter’s bedroom: He canceled his vacation.
Normally, coaches and scouts go to their lake houses or beachfront properties in the middle of June to shut it down for a month or so. Douglas had plans, as he always does.
Now? He went to North Carolina for his mom’s 80th birthday this weekend—the one thing he didn’t take off the calendar. He checked back into the hotel where he's spent the past week, he’ll be back in the office Monday, and he’ll be there right on through the return of all the football people in mid-July.
“This is a lot different than most of my summers,” he said. “I’d tell you in the past, I'd usually be getting ready to head to Outer Banks or maybe Ocean City, Md. for a couple of days with the family and kids. That's not happening.”
There’s a lot to catch up on. Ahead of his interview two weeks ago, Douglas watched tape of four games of the Jets defense and six of the Jets offense from last year, so he could speak with some depth at his meeting with acting owner Christopher Johnson.
Since then, he’s learned more. He’s gotten to know Johnson and an organization that looked, at least to us on the outside, like a five-alarm fire in mid-May. He’s gotten through most of the team’s 2019 tape. He’s acquainted himself around the building. And he’s gained some perspective. Over about an hour on Thursday, Douglas and I covered that perspective, top to bottom. What can we distill for you from the conversation?
Leaving Philly wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t just because there were some pratfalls waiting for him 90 minutes north in Jersey. It was also because of where the Eagles are, which both promised to insulate his place as a hot young executive and provide chances to compete for championships.
“I really feel like that franchise, that football team, they're firing on all cylinders,” Douglas said. “It's as deep of a team as I've ever seen there. And that's including the ’17 team. There's a lot of good going on. And so that made it a really tough decision.”
The next question, obviously: Why did he leave? That relates back to the Saturday night dinner and Sunday interview he had with Johnson.
“Even just within five minutes, your first instinct is like, ‘Christopher Johnson is a really good man,’” Douglas said. “He's extremely genuine. He's extremely sincere. He's a direct communicator. He believes in a lot of the same things I believe in when it comes to the successful teams—people, chemistry, teamwork, selflessness. The more I talked with him, the more I knew.”
Of course, Christopher Johnson will eventually hand the reins back to his older brother Woody, whenever Woody returns from his appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the UK. That could happen as soon as next year, and it was a concern of most of the candidates who considered the job. It sounds like Douglas at least got it addressed. Asked if he was concerned about it, Douglas said, “No. Without going into the details, I feel good about the situation, and I feel great about Christopher.”
He doesn’t see this as a teardown. Douglas was part of one with the Bears in 2015. “[GM] Ryan [Pace] has done an amazing job in Chicago,” Douglas says. And Douglas was also part of a job that required more fine-tuning than fumigation, alongside Howie Roseman in Philly three years ago. It’s clear how he sees this one, in relative terms.
“It was not a teardown there, and I don't think it's a teardown here,” Douglas said. “And frankly, those two are much better situations than when me and Adam [Gase] walked into in Chicago in ’15.”
There are some pretty valuable lessons he’s taking from the infancy of Roseman’s reemergence atop the Philly football operation, and that’s how important it is to bring the building back together after a tumultuous couple years. Within a couple months, the Eagles extended veterans Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson, Vinny Curry and Malcolm Jenkins. And that summer, they got star DT Fletcher Cox done too.
“[Roseman] knew the building was fractured,” Douglas said. “He knew that the players needed a safe harbor. And he wanted to send a message to the homegrown players that if you do right, you're going to be cared for—we're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And I think that went a long way.”
When I asked Douglas if he felt like he had to bring the building back together like Roseman did in Philly, he answered that he didn’t want to judge those that came before him. But, very clearly, and regardless of what happened before, he knows the building needs to be together.
“With all the highs and the lows and the adversity you face, it's just important to have strong relationships and try to cultivate strong relationships around the building, not just on the personnel side or the coaching side but really around the building,” Douglas said. “We're all in this together. We're all pulling in the same direction and everyone wants to feel part of it. So I think that's important, to have a building unified.”
He has watched a lot of Darnold. We mentioned that Douglas watched six games of the Jets on offense and four on defense before his interview. The reason for the disparity is he wanted to have a feel for the quarterback. So he looked at two early-season games of Darnold’s, then the Jets’ final four games, the four that came after the now-22-year-old returned from a foot injury.
“Sam did a really nice job coming back from injury,” Douglas said. “Just seeing him seeing him, he's not a guy that hung onto the ball for very long. He's able to go through his progressions quickly, I like his feet in the pocket, I like his pocket awareness, he's got a nice quick release, ball spins out of his hands, he throws an accurate ball, he can escape. … So he’s an interesting guy. I mean, he’s a good player.”
While he was digging through Darnold, Douglas saw what he believes is a better-than-advertised group of skill players. Robby Anderson, in particular, impressed Douglas, especially when the new GM popped in the Denver tape from October. “He's a tough weapon for defenses to match up with, he can get behind you and he can challenge the defense vertically. That was a very pleasant surprise.”
Douglas added the tape also confirmed the things he, and the Eagles, liked about tight end Chris Herndon before the 2018 draft. And, having been in the AFC North and NFC East, he has plenty of background competing against new additions Jamison Crowder (“really savvy, quick, really good route-runner”) and Le’Veon Bell (“probably one of the best running backs in football”).
The defense is strong up the gut. This one is obvious, based on investment. The Jets will line up two top-5 picks on the inside of their defensive line, two big-ticket free-agent signings as off-ball linebackers, and two top-40 picks at safety. They should be good through the middle of the defense. And they are, as Douglas sees it.
“You talk about baseball teams, you want to build from the inside out, I think this defense is strong, strong up the middle,” he said.
Douglas hit all the obvious ones. He just said, “golly,” when Leonard Williams’s name came up, mentioned that Avery Williamson was on Philly’s radar as a 2018 free agent, called Jamal Adams “as fierce a competitor as you'll find in this league”, and noted how he was in Baltimore when C.J. Mosley was drafted in 2014. But beyond just that, he added, “I was pleasantly surprised with their interior depth.” He knew ex-Steeler NT Steve McLendon from his Raven days, and liked DT Nathan Shepherd coming out in 2018. Both those guys showed up in his evaluation of what will be behind Leonard Williams and third overall pick Quinnen Williams. Again, Douglas doesn’t feel like he’s starting from scratch.
There was good reason for Douglas to call off his annual away time over the next few weeks, and it’s not just professional. The Jets’ North Jersey home is, as Douglas puts it, “right at the point of uncomfortable” in distance from his home in South Jersey, about 90 minutes away (without traffic). So he and his wife have been huddling on moving a little ways up the I-95 corridor this summer.
“I never wanted to be a sleep-in-the-office guy, not when I have little kids,” Douglas says. “This game keeps you way enough.”
And it will in the interim, too, with Douglas planning to be in the office daily right until the start of camp. He had his first personnel meeting with the coaches on Wednesday. Now, with most of the football staff off, he’s going to try to use the next few weeks to forge relationships with those on the business side.
That will happen when Douglas takes breaks from his study, which has moved to practice tape from the spring (both OTAs and minicamp) “I've watched tape from last year, but I haven't watched this team all together.” There are obvious holes on the roster, to be sure, in the areas Douglas didn’t mention above (corner, edge rusher, offensive line). He’ll get to work on solutions for those.
He’ll also be communicating with Gase, whose work, along with John Fox and Vic Fangio, with that barren Chicago roster in ’15 certainly left an impression on Douglas, enough that the new head coach’s presence became a draw. “I know what kind of coach he is,” he said. "I know that I can make it work with Adam.”
Eventually, he’ll get to take a breath and let it all sink in. That hasn’t happened quite yet, and maybe it won’t for a while. But he knows, and knew back when he was staring at those pink walls, what he signed up for. And considering where the Jets have been the last few months, there’s a lot of work to do.
PAT BOWLEN'S LEGACY AND THE BRONCOS' FUTURE
The story is from the John Fox era, with the Broncos coming off a good year but maybe not a great one. Owner Pat Bowlen gathered his senior football staff for a dinner just after it ended. There, he called for a toast.
Here’s to a Super Bowl next year! Or else!
It wasn’t meant in a mean-spirited way, and wasn’t taken that way by John Elway, Fox, or any others in attendance. Rather, it was just who Bowlen was as a boss. He cared about his people, but he never relented from demanding the very best of them. He delivered it in a sort of kidding-but-not-kidding tone, one that got the message across without ruining the spirit of the evening. And it wasn’t long before the Broncos were champions again.
Bowlen passed away on Thursday, at the age of 75. He owned the Broncos for 35 years, running them for the first 30 before Alzheimer’s left him unable to lead the day-to-day business of the football team. His legacy can, in a bunch of ways, be encapsulated in the above anecdote. And it’s a legacy with a long list of accomplishments. Among them:
• Seven trips to the Super Bowl under four different coaches, and three world titles in 35 seasons. Denver is also tied with the Patriots and Steelers for the fewest losing seasons (seven) over that time.
• Former NBC exec Dick Ebersol called Bowlen the “father of Sunday Night Football”, using his key role in NFL broadcasting to help move the league’s showcase primetime event from Monday Night in 2006. Bowlen was also a leader, along with Jerry Jones, in getting FOX (then known as little more than the home of The Simpsons) involved in the NFL in the early ’90s.
• As native of Wisconsin and adopted Canadian, Bowlen became deeply entrenched in the Denver community, which in turn identified with its local NFL team. He was the only owner among the 123 major North American sports teams to fund his own branch of the Boys and Girls Club, paying operating costs that are now over a quarter-million dollars annually.
• He was a pretty good athlete in his own right, having played for the Oklahoma freshman football team in college, then Canadian Junior Football’s Edmonton Huskies, before getting into triathlons. In 1984, he finished in the top 200 in the Ironman in Hawaii, among close to 1,500 participants.
You’ll hear more about him in the coming months, of course, with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame slated for August. And that’s deserved, of course—he took a franchise that had been nondescript before his arrival and turned it into one of the NFL’s brand names, while more recently helping to bridge the old and new schools in ownership circles.
As for what comes next, nothing will change in the immediate future. Bowlen laid out a plan before he got sick, naming team president Joe Ellis as “controlling owner delegee” while the possibility of one of the Bowlen kids taking over is fleshed out. If one of the kids proves worthy, it will be Ellis, team general counsel Rich Slivka and attorney Mary Kelly making the decision, as trustees, to hand over control.
The most likely to get it (by a comfortable margin) is 29-year-old Brittany Bowlen, a Notre Dame graduate and Duke MBA. She’s taken part in a rotational program at the league office, and worked for the Broncos on the business side during the championship 2015 season. She’s currently working at the consulting firm McKinsey and Co., with plans to take a business-side executive role with the Broncos early on in the 2019 season.
But for the time being, the team will operate as it has for the last five years, with Ellis acting as owner. But Brittany Bowlen’s focus on and drive towards filling her father’s shoes, eventually, has at least created the perception that this is more “when” than “if”. And whenever it does happen, she’ll have some big shoes to fill.
THE BLACK QUARTERBACK CLUB SUMMIT
Quincy Avery, as a personal quarterbacks coach, is as self-made as they come—he started as a volunteer at UCLA. He’s deeply invested in every kid he’s taken under his wing. It’s his livelihood, and his influence has grown to the point where NFL quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson, Dwayne Haskins and Josh Dobbs have entrusted their mechanics to him. Over the weekend, he took that influence to a different level.
Avery staged the first Black Quarterback Club summit in Atlanta, bringing NFL and college players to Atlanta to work with a group of 72 high school quarterbacks. They did two days of on-field work, but maybe most impactful was the symposium held on Friday night, which brought to light the reasons why Avery decided to put the event together in the first place.
Really, this was an outgrowth of an incident from last September. The Texans’ clock management was an issue at the end of a loss to Tennessee, and an East Texas school superintendent responded by posting this to Facebook: “That may have been the most inept quarterback decision I've seen in the NFL. When you need precision decision making you can't count on a black quarterback.”
“No one knows how to respond to something like that,” Avery said Sunday night. “But on a smaller scale, that kind of thing is happening day-in and day-out. … I’ve been working with so many guys, in college, the NFL, these things they’re struggling with, the issues they have, from being one of the only black guys in the room because there are so few black quarterbacks, coordinators and quarterbacks coaches.
"It’s a unique situation to them at the quarterback position. They don’t always have someone to go to, to provide them with the advice on how to handle situations like that. So I thought we should get the NFL guys, and get Warren [Moon] together to share their perspective.”
Avery says the response he got from those he reached out to was immediate; they wanted to jump on board and help. Some, like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston, had scheduling conflicts but showed support. Others did make it. Watson, Dobbs and EJ Manuel were there, as were Moon and college quarterbacks Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma) and D’Eriq King (Houston).
The hope is that the event will grow over the next few years, and Avery’s plan is to try and use it to address a number of issues that he thinks still hold people back. One is with the pipeline of backup quarterbacks—while eight of the league’s 32 starters are black, just 14 of the 88 backups currently on 90-man rosters are. Another is the relative dearth of black quarterbacks coaches and OCs. Both issues, he knows, are complex and will take time to solve.
“It starts at the high school level,” Avery said. “I think we have a long way to go before we see everyone as just a quarterback, so we have to keep putting people in leadership positions—head coaches, offensive coordinators, quarterbacks coaches. … I think we can do a better job of advocating for these guys, to get them in that room from the time they’re quality control coaches.”
Avery got to see Watson address the situation with the superintendent head on, and Watson addressed it in front of the campers on Friday. “He knew he could’ve gone back after him, but he talked about being the example, it was important for him to be the bigger person.” Watson then had an in-depth talk with Hurts on what he’ll be facing in a year’s time, when his college eligibility is up.
Avery knows, too, that there may be questions about exclusivity of the event. He says he wants to create a safe space for younger kids, where they can speak freely and not feel like they are being judged. He had coaches of all races doing the on-field work, but insulated the symposium portion of the event. And he hopes the guys found value in it.